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Monday, December 2, 2013

Sisyphus was a working mom

Sisyphus, by Titian

Do you know about the myth of Sisyphus? In Greek mythology, Sisyphus was condemned to push a boulder up a mountain over and over again, as the boulder would roll down as soon as it was all the way up. Symbolically, this meaningless and repetitive (and probably painful and depressing) task could refer to the absurdity of life (there are other possible interpretations).

I have to say, most days of my life, I feel like my middle name should be Sisyphus. So, so many boring and meaningless and repetitive tasks fill my days, it's hard to see anything else to life than pure absurdity sometimes. And from talking to other working moms, my observation is that this is widespread.

I am not mentioning working dads for 2 reasons: first, I don't chat with men as much as I chat with women, and so I cannot extrapolate to their situation without knowing for sure; second, from what I hear, dads do not have such a heavy load, simply because they do much less at home. I'm not making this up; just ask around and let me know if you disagree... keeping in mind that there ARE exceptions, fathers who do as much childminding and household chores as their female counterparts.

In any case, working mothers are overloaded, to the point that many (very many!) frequently feel pressure on their chest or take anxiety pills to cope. There is so much to think about. One friend's husband recently asked her: "Why are you so stressed?" Her list was endless. To begin with "What shoes are the kids gonna wear with their Christmas outfit?" He hadn't even thought of that one.

On its own, none of the "little stresses" is enough to make someone panic, but together, they just add up to a mountain of things to think about and get done! Especially this time of year! The presents are just one example. Presents for the children, presents for the parents, presents for gift exchanges, presents for the hostesses, presents for the teachers, presents for the bus drivers... it just never ends! And what about getting the house and the pantry ready for the Holidays? And what about the cards to send? And what about the babysitters to find for all those "adult only" parties? And what about all of the other, regular chores, that won't disappear just because it's December!

Not only do the chores have to be done...
We also have to look pretty
girl_onthe_les, Flickr

As I was asking D recently, is it normal to be so exhausted and yet feel like you're still not doing enough? I'm not even a neat freak, and I almost never bake! How do those women get it all done?

This weekend, between one chore and the next, I felt like I was seriously lagging behind in terms of quality time with both the kids and the dog, so I decided to take them all for a run while D went to the grocery store. Alone. (Lucky man. In his defense, he did offer to take the girls, but they opted for the run with mama.)

The run was awful. One kid whined. The dog pulled and/or stopped to sniff anything in sight (or out of sight). Thanks to the cold and my allergic rhinitis, my nose was running as much as my legs. I had a hard time convincing myself that I was gaining anything at all from this run. I kept telling myself: "This is good for you, this is good for you, this is good for you".

The first thing I said as I walked in the house, to D who was putting the groceries away, was "Well, I certainly did not do this for myself!"

Notwithstanding the run, December is only beginning and I'm already out of breath. I feel bad complaining because I'm actually lucky: D is super-duper involved with the endless list of things to accomplish. I can only imagine what it's like to live with a man who thinks once he's back home from work, his job is done. Unfortunately, those men seem to abound. And yes ladies and gentlemen, this is 2013.

Some of you will advise tired moms out there to just let go of some. I will respond with a question: what exactly should we stop doing? Should we forgo cleaning the bathrooms? Yuck. Should we forgo making healthy meals? Me think not. Should we forgo shaving our armpits? Watch them all scream "Ewww..."

As a comedian I admire once wisely said, "I want to take a break, but when I get back, my chores have not disappeared... they have tripled!"

Camus, the existentialist/absurdist French author, wrote "One must imagine Sisyphus happy". He stated that "The struggle itself is enough to fill a man's heart". Maybe I should rejoice in mopping the floors and waiting in line to pay my holiday purchases.

Uh... no.

Wow... seriously?!?
napudollworld, Flickr

What's the solution, then? How can one still enjoy life while getting it all accomplished? How can one be happy despite the constant burden? This is what we need: frequent breaks. To rest. To have fun. To do something we like.

But a break only is possible with a little bit of help.

Trading help with another lady who's in a similar situation is great. I do it often. But even better is to enlist children and spouse to participate more. There's no reason they should all rest and/or have fun while mama's going crazy over the Holidays prep. There's no reason why mama's breaks should be shorter and less frequent. I know this will be hard to swallow, but... moms are human beings!

Too often, what I see is a well-rested, well-fed and well-entertained family... with the exception of the mom, who chases her tail constantly. It breaks my heart: true love, it turns out, might be your willingness to work hard so that your life partner won't collapse in exhaustion. Who would have thought?

As I said, I already have a very hard-working partner, so there is little to improve in those matters. (By the way, being involved in the work includes taking initiative. Waiting for and obeying orders just won't do. It does not lighten the load enough!)

What we try to do more, in our family, is to get the kids to help out more, based on their age and abilities. A family is a community, and in a community, everyone who is capable should pitch in. My daughters are 7½ and almost 10. Here's a sample of what they do on a regular basis (with occasional help if needed):

  • Make their own breakfast
  • Make their own lunch
  • Pack their schoolbag, making sure they have everything they need
  • Unpack their bag and lunch at the end of the day
  • Clean their room and put away anything they use in other areas of the house
  • Set the table
  • Clean up the table after supper
  • Empty and fill the dishwasher
  • Put their clean laundry away
  • Fold part of the laundry
  • Vacuum the main floor
  • Mop the main floor
  • Dust the furniture
  • Take the dog out
  • Feed the pets (1 dog, 2 cats)
  • Empty the litter box
  • Change the garbage bags
  • Take the garbage (and the green bin) to the curb (and bring them back after)
  • Help out with any "seasonal" chores: for example, yesterday they helped decorate for the Holidays

Does that seem like a long list? Believe me, there is still A LOT of stuff to be done by D and me. Between the numerous other chores and driving our sweethearts to their innumerable activities (they have less than most kids... still a lot), there is no time to be bored! And don't worry, my kids still have plenty of time to play. Children were not made to sit on a couch in front of a screen. Children in most cultures play a little bit, help out a little bit, play a little bit, help out a little bit, repeat. They grow up to have reasonable expectations about life (which in turn brings about a healthier mental life).

But the nicest thing about the kids pitching in, apart from the fact that it makes them hard-working, independent and resourceful people, is that mom and dad end up with more free time. And guess who we end up spending a lot of our free time with? The kids, of course. I have told my kids "If we all work on this together, we will all be free earlier, and we will all be able to spend some time together".

Plus, I won't stay up late to clean up. Call me crazy, but I am adamant at getting my 7½ hours of sleep every night. I might be self-indulgent, but I feel like I deserve to sleep sufficiently.

Having the kids help also frees time for D and I to spend with each other, which is so important, and which still benefits the kids indirectly: a happy couple makes a happy family.

When all family members work hard, guess what... everyone is happy. Even mama! Isn't that fantastic?

What about your family?

Taking the kids to see Santa: done
Only 124 other things left on the December to-do list!


  1. So many true facts here!!!
    We did the Christmas decorating yesterday but that is the only December thing that is done!
    I'm lucky because my husband does a lot around the house and once I let go a little and realized his way isn't wrong (just not my way) it has been a huge help. And, we encourage the boys to pitch in around the house because we are all part of the family.

    1. Similar views, similar experience!

      The job is done "differently" when it's done by someone else, and I have let go of the idea to let my kids wash the mirrors (they were worst after than before, LOL) but delegating implies letting go of perfectionism! :-)

  2. This should be the working mom's bible, chapter 1. We are not slaves. But we behave like it.

  3. I think it can be more stressful for working moms than working dads because dads get to leave the family worries at home. But a working mom is always on the clock when it comes to the family, even when she's at work. It's tough! And I would like to strangle the brilliant mind behind the cleaning Barbie! UGH!

    1. There was a study that showed that even when men do a lot of house/kids related chores, women are still the ones who carry "the list" in their mind and make sure everything gets done. Men were more likely to simply "obey orders", without the mental burden. Their "home-related" levels of stress hence were lower.

      Thank you Nicole! :-)

  4. Sometimes I feel that our system of justice should be modeled on Greek mythology! Not much recidivism with their lawbreakers, lol!

    The only dad that I know really well easily does 50% of the work with raising his two kids and does it really well, as does his wife! They both have full-time jobs. I know they are exceptions, but it's wonderful to know exceptions like them!

    1. That reminds me of Singapore government being asked by the US government to stop using physical punishment. They said to the US government: "When you have our rate of criminality, we can talk"...

      I know a couple of those equal share exceptions, and I only wish they were the norm! :-)

  5. I think enlisting kids is a great idea! We had chores as kids, but probably could have done more. And the areas we were not required to help are, not coincidentally, the areas I have the least confidence in as an adult.

    Sounds like your guy is a good helper, but I hear so often that's not the case. Not being heterosexual, I've never understood why so many women just accept an unfair labor division rather than push for one that's equal. Society won't change until women decide that fairness is important enough to make a stink about, but I've been hearing the same issue come up ever since the 1960's and it still seems to persist!

    1. Some people even say that we shouldn't use the word "help" or "helper" when referring to how much the husband pitches in. There is no concept of help if your aim is a 50-50 share.

      I'm with a man yet do wonder, like you, why so many women accept this unfair division of labor. I have a feeling this is a deep issue. Do women even know they deserve better, would be my question.

  6. that seems a very reasonable list for kids that age. When I was growing up, I often got recruited for doing yard work, and I sure whined about that, but I did it. And we all had regular chores (cleaning cat box high on the list). Saturday was our chore day, and the sooner we got things done the sooner we could go play. That was a pretty good incentive.

    My son-in-law is a great example of the new generation of dads who are a lot more involved with the kids and the running of the household. And he enjoys it. I'm seeing it more and more these days, and it's a good direction to be going in.

    1. I like the incentive approach! I often tell my kids that if they help, then we will get to read together. Otherwise, they will have to read alone as I am still busy with chores.

      Good for your son-in-law! Hopefully the "more and more" you see will become a trend.

  7. In my opinion, children don't do enough chores these days. They're parked in front of the TV (or video games). That worries me about the future......

    1. I agree that between watching TV or playing video games OR helping with chores, the most beneficial activity for kids is definitely not the first one!!! Unless your kid wants to become a remote controlled robotic surgeon... :-)